Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and the others are back on Sunday for Downton's fifth series. Kirstie Brewer looks at why, from China to Canada, this very English series has been such a success
Downton Abbey sweeps back on to Sunday-night television this weekend, much to the delight of its avid fan base. While the British public has long had a love affair with costume drama – not to mention Dame Maggie Smith – the rest of the world has also taken the show to its bosom.
“Nobody in their right mind could have predicted what happened, when it sort of went viral,” Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, told The New York Times last year.
In 2013, the exploits of the aristocratic Crawley family were watched by an estimated global audience of 120 million. After us Brits, Anglophiles in the USA and Asia have been going particularly gaga for the post-Edwardian drama.
Since its ITV debut in September 2010, Downton has been sold to more than 220 territories, reaching a level of international popularity rarely achieved by a British series.
Visitor numbers at Highclere Castle, where the drama is filmed, have more than doubled since Downton’s debut. “We used to have good days, now we have great days,” says Candice Bauval, assistant to the Countess of Carnarvon, who lives at Highclere.
Aside from the swathes of British tourists, the historic site attracts visitors from all over the world, particularly North America and the Nordics. Visitors are coming from China and Japan in increasing numbers, too.
Downton Abbey is big business in China: 160 million people there tune in for the show. This summer, David Cameron gifted the country’s leader with an autographed script of the show’s debut episode.
For the booming middle class in China, the show is aspirational, says Rachel Emerson, who has lived and worked in the country for more than 20 years.
“Wealth and success are huge status symbols in China, which is why Downton is so appealing”, she says. Mr Carson and his ilk are hot property, as China is the fastest-growing market in the world for British butlers.
“I think those who have wealth subscribe to stereotypical symbols of western culture,” Emerson says. “For example, there is an attempt to purchase class through buying chandeliers, marble floorings, grand pianos, owning horses and sending children to English boarding schools.”
Da-Xia Chow, a teacher from Nanjing, says she and her friends have modelled their English accents on period dramas such as Downton Abbey. “We are in love with that way of life and Downton’s romantic aesthetic,” she says.
“I think people here in Hong Kong watch the show for nostalgia,” says Chinese businessman Joe Lu, in reference to the region’s status as a former British colony.
“People are attracted by the clever blending of history and drama in the storyline as well as by the meticulous production,” Lu says, though, he adds, a lot of fans stopped watching Downton Abbey after the tragic demise of ‘heartthrob’ Matthew Crawley in season three.
Still, the news reports that George Clooney is to appear in a one-off Downton special may coax some heartbroken Chinese souls back into the fold. One suspects the Clooney factor will have universal appeal.
Pre-George, the injection of more American blood in the past two series (Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson and her son, played by Paul Giamatti) have added to the show’s US appeal.
American viewers are eagerly counting down to fifth series going live on the PBS network in January.
“The idea of rigid class difference is somewhat exotic and, of course, the enormous estate with the huge number of staff is also a lifestyle that is unfamiliar to many American viewers,” says Anne Mattina, a university professor from Boston and Downton obsessive.
People everywhere are drawn to a world that seems almost surreal to us now, in the 21st century. “The characters have such a formal way of living, with so many rules and taboos surrounding relationships of all kinds, not to mention all those fabulous clothes,” says Anne.
The lives, loves and dramas of Downton’s inhabitants resonate today, and so do their anxieties over status and family obligation.
And this is the key to its global appeal: Downton Abbey is at once antiquated yet timeless. “There is a universal aspect to the characters that everyone in the world relates to,” Downton producer Gareth Neame has said. From Basingstoke to Beijing, we all need an escape.